"To be off balance but still under control"

Or: too many ideas, a creative explosion, stunning color palettes, African strip quilts, and me

Sometimes, work and play intersect, overlap, combine. For this week's material culture class, we read four selections, chapters and articles, on design and aesthetic. One of the pieces was a chapter from John M. Vlach's book The Afro-American Tradition in Decorative Arts, and the particular chapter was on African American historical quilting motifs.

Just a few days earlier, I had read a fantastic article from the Wall Street Journal on Denyse Schmidt--easily my favorite designer involved in quilts and modern textiles on this earth. In it, she describes her style as "neo-hillbilly," which is a remarkably apt term, and one that I thought really got to the heart of her improvisational, old-timey, non-conformist, simple designs and motifs. Nearly every time I browse her quilts and patterns, I find something else that inspires me. Sometimes I want to copy her, other times I want to use a technique or a kind of aesthetic she's used to head off in my own direction. I find her entire perspective on quilting fascinating and stimulating.

Reading Vlach's chapter on African American quilting was nothing less than a revelation. Accompanied by many full-page photos of some very old quilt faces, he explains what many may have known before, but I never did: African American quilting aesthetic is grounded in improvisation, and the strip quilt in particular comes almost directly from West African and larger African weaving and textile traditions. The quilt as a form and quilt-making as a practice are European in origin, and so enslaved Africans "encountered the quilt as of the plantation experience."

He goes into great detail about West African applique techniques, patterns, and purpose, but the revelatory part came after, with his description and illustration of the strip quilt.

Denyse Schmidt, in that article, had been talking about the value of state quilt documentation projects for her own inspiration; those are initiatives that were taken up in the 1980s and '90s in nearly every state, urging people to bring in any quilt they knew of, old and ratty, any condition, to document each one and what the owners knew about them at that time, so that their histories could be collected and kept, as an important part of American traditional culture, and as a true collection of Americana art.

I had begun researching these documentation projects, and found the largest compendium of the projects in one place: The Quilt Index. (Browse at your own risk! It may consume your day.) There are also numerous books, by state, on their quilt documentations, including the processes, some of the most significant quilts, and if you're lucky, directions for some of them.

Everything was colliding at once: quilt documentation projects as a source of "hill-billy" and traditional inspiration, from days when making your quilt meant using scraps, old clothing, and feed sacks--sometimes from textiles you have woven yourself--and accurate design came second to having a warm blanket to sleep under; Denyse Schmidt's minimal take on quilting and what constitutes artistic design; and Vlach's chapter on both of these concepts placed right smack dab in their historical place.

All the sudden, I turn to a page and see an "improvisational log cabin motif," identical the one on the quilt I am currently making. Next to it, for comparison, was the precise, mathematical European log cabin form. Here was one of the core bases for my personal inspiration: southern quilting, and African American design aesthetic. As Vlach points out, this approach greatly resembles an improvisational approach to music that creates jazz, in that you must have a mastery of the form of the craft before you can begin to improvise. And African American women who lived in slavery were creating a counterculture exactly their own when they quilted, preserving a cultural memory within the larger colonial and early American traditions surrounding them.

The photos of quilts accompanying Vlach's text were each more fabulous and inspiring and random and thoughtful as the next. (Sadly, I checked out the book from the school library and was sad to find that the book itself is in black and white, meaning I cannot see the pieces in color.) The strip motif derives from the African tradition of men's textile weaving, in which long pieces are woven on a loom and then cut into strips of the right length to be sewn together to form a blanket. For the first time in my life, I felt an itch to learn to use a loom, to make some of this stuff myself and build up a long, winding bundle that I could cut up and stitch into one quilt front.

Some were so simple they were stunningly curved and mix-matched and all too easy to start planning. Others were more composed, but still with that off-kilter charm, the very thing I was finding I wanted in my quilts, and the very thing that Denyse Schmidt makes sure is in each of hers. Not surprisingly, when I found myself in one of my favorite quilt stores a few days later, I ended up leaving with a quilt's worth of fabrics in a palette that I am calling "menswear + African."

By the way, I am already working on two other quilts right now. So yes, this makes three. And I have two jobs and go to grad school full time. What?

But that's why I have Be The Ink, to compile and share my ideas when I can't execute them anywhere else, for the time being.